Airbus Helicopters has handed over the first AS565 Panther MBe to the Mexican navy, with the aircraft to be delivered to a base near the Gulf of Mexico for training in the next two weeks.
Revealed during a ceremony at the company’s Marignane site in the south of France on 28 September, the aircraft is the first of 10 on order for Mexico, which will add to its current fleet of four Panther MB variants.
At the request of the navy, the aircraft has been delivered nine months ahead of schedule – a development which will ensure that all its new rotorcraft will be handed over ahead of a presidential change in Mexico in December 2018.
After the first example is delivered to Mexico via a Boeing 747 freighter at the beginning of October for training, another Panther MBe is expected to follow later the same month, followed by a further two during November. The remaining six are scheduled to be transferred in 2017.
Four of the aircraft had originally been due for delivery next year, followed by a final pair in 2018, but Vice Adm Jose Garcia Macedo, general coordinator of Mexican naval aeronautics, says he is confident that the entire order will be completed by the end of next year, as now planned.
Mexican pilots are currently training at Airbus Helicopters’ Singapore facility, undergoing conversion ahead of the type's delivery. As the aircraft arrives in Mexico, the pilots will carry out 10h of live training, to complete their type qualification.
“We are on track, and the second helicopter is already painted,” Janick Blanc, vice-president of the Dauphin and H155 programme at Airbus Helicopters, says. “It was a great challenge for us to deliver ahead of the contract,” he adds.
The MBe model benefits from Safran Helicopter Engines Arriel 2N powerplants, new avionics and an increased payload – increasing maximum take-off weight to 4,500kg (9,910b), from 4,300kg.
The second customer for the type is Indonesia, which has 11 on order, for delivery by 2018. Three will be delivered to Indonesian company PTDI in November, with this to integrate an indigenously-developed sonar onto two of the airframes.
Blanc says that the acceleration of the Mexican order has also helped to move the Indonesian programme ahead of schedule, and attributes this to the “lean production line” at the Marignane facility, which is now producing one of the aircraft per month.
The next potential market for the Panther MBe is India, where it is being proposed for a Naval Utility Helicopter (NUH) programme, which is expected to deliver 110 aircraft.
“This is very important for us… it is our next fight and we are in very good shape,” Blanc says. “We have a good product and can respond to their requirements.”
A request for information was released at the end of 2015, and a request for proposals is expected in six months’ time, Blanc says.
The recent purchase of 36 Dassault Rafale fighters for India could spur New Delhi to accelerate its NUH programme, Blanc says, noting: “Now the contract is done [for Rafale] we hope it will add a new dynamic to priorities.”
Airbus will partner with Mahindra for the Indian bid, and it is expected that production could eventually be carried out in-country.
Some 50% of the work has to be carried out in India according to programme rules, but “we are at a very early stage in discussions”, Blanc says.
“That [moving production to India] is something that we are thinking about,” he adds.
Other requirements that Airbus could target with the MBe is a German navy requirement for an anti-submarine warfare rotorcraft, while Blanc says that there is interest from one customer in each of the Middle Eastern, South American and Central American markets.